Prior to the St. John’s Creighton game on February 23, one fan was cautious. “Let me see three wins in a row and I will be a believer”, he asserted.
A pair of longtime female fans with the fan were more positive. “We’re glad to see Posh back,” one said confidently. “He is a difference maker”. Her friend chimed in, “we are hoping for more than what they did last time” as St. John’s took on a team that had badly beaten the Red Storm by 23 points one month ago.
St. John’s began the contest with Esahia Nyiwe starting in place of an injured Joel Soriano. Missing Soriano was a concern as he has been playing good defense in recent games; Nywie faced a challenge guarding 7’1” Ryan Kalkbrenner of Creighton. The Johnnies fans were ready, in white shirts the school put on each chair, chanting “Let’s Go Johnnies” from the game’s onset.
There was no scoring for the first minute and a half until Nyiwe intercepted a Creighton pass and fed Posh Alexander for a 2-0 lead. Shortly after, Kalkbrenner asserted himself down low and then two Blue Jay threes and five straight points by Ryan Hawkins of Creighton put the visitors ahead 13-6 at the 14:33 mark; it looked like a long night ahead for the Johnnies.
Creighton’s Arthur Kaluma entered the game the lead increases to 20-10 after Kaluma converted a free throw. At this point of the game Posh Alexander had scored eight of the Johnnies 10 points on layups and put backs of teammates misses.
At the 12-minute mark Stef Smith entered the game and, after a pump fake drew his defender in the air, he hit a foul line jumper, the first of seven points in a four-minute span as St. John’s clawed back into the game. Down 20-12 the Johnnies went with a small lineup of Smith, Tareq Coburn, Dylan Addae-Wusu, Aaron Wheeler and Rafael Pinzon.
Pinzon saw his first action in two months. He made an impact taking down a rebound, bringing the ball upcourt and hitting Smith on the left wing for a layup. Kalkbrenner continued to score under the basket, but the Johnnies were clawing their way back into the game.
At the 8:14 mark Addae-Wusu hit Montez Mathis, who attacked and made a nice entry pass to O’Mar Stanley for a dunk, cutting the Blue Jay lead to seven, 28-21.
The positive fans from before noted that Stef Smith who was the one Johnnie keeping them in the game.
Julian Champagnie contributed with a drive and a pass to a charging Stanley for a dunk, Then, from the left corner, hit what would be his only three of the afternoon, and the Johnnies were down by two at 30-28. The arena erupted with chants of “defense … defense”.
Montez Mathis delivered a layup and a free throw. The Johnnies were up by four at 36-32. As the half wound down Mathis hit another old fashioned three and then a three-point jumper. He finished the half with 13 points, hitting five of six field goal attempts.
The Johnnies led the Blue Jays 46 to 39 at the half. From the statistics at the half the game seemed to be evenly played. Each team had 12 assists. Despite Kalkbrenner’s dominance on the offensive end of the court, rebounds were also close, 18-16 in Creighton’s favor. The Johnnies, however, had significantly fewer turnovers.
The Red Storm got 30 of its 46 points from three guards, Smith, Mathis and Alexander and began their comeback midway through the first half with a small lineup on the court.
Johnnies’ fans were hopeful that a significant win was on the way; after a backdoor dunk by Nywie, assisted by Champagnie, the lead rose to nine.
In less than two minutes the Red Storm lead was down to three.
A Wheeler steal and a pass to Mathis led to Alexander and a quick feed to Champagnie — and Champagnie had a team-assisted dunk. St. John’s was up five.
Ryan Hawkins and the Blue Jays’ Trey Alexander got hot. The Red Storm lead jostled between two and four points.
At 15 minutes to play, O’Mar Stanley reentered the game for the Johnnies and asserted himself on the offensive end. Two layups and a jumper kept the Johnnies in the lead. Fellow freshman Rafael Pinzon hit a three pointer, assisted by Addae-Wusu, and the Johnnies were fighting back the Creighton surge. Another Stanley layup, another Smith three-pointer and with 10 minutes to play the Johnnies were up 66-62.
Smith was not finished. In 19 minutes of playing time, he hit five of six shots and scored 13 points. After another Blue Jays three, Smith negated it with his own three pointer as the Johnnies continued to fight off the Blue Jays charge.
During this period neither Champagnie, Wheeler nor Alexander was scoring.
With eight minutes to play, the starters returned to the court. The hot Smith and efficient Stanley were relegated to the bench. They did not return.
The Blue Jays finally took the lead on a Trey Alexander jumper, but a Mathis layup regained the lead. He was fouled but missed the free throw. The Johnnies led by one, 76-75.
The Johnnies defense stiffened, urged on by chants of “defense” by the student section. When the Blue Jays retook the lead with two minutes to play, Wheeler and Champagnie, defended tightly by Creighton, seemed to shy away from the ball. It was Mathis who took over along with Posh Alexander.
With 17 seconds to play, down by one point, the Johnnies had the ball. No one seemed ready to to take the hoped for, go ahead shot. So, with five seconds to play, it was Mathis who drove into the lane, confronted by 7’1” Kalkbrenner. His layup attempt was disrupted with no foul called and the Johnnies once again lost a heartbreaker.
Don’t underestimate the loss of Joel Soriano
Creighton’s starting Center Ryan Kalkbrenner is 7’1” and 256 pounds. He made 8/13 shots. He was guarded by Eshia Nyiwe. Nywie is 6’10” and weighs 220. When Creighton isolated Kalkbrenner on Nyiwe, Kalkbrenner backed him in and won that battle. Would he have won it so significantly against Soriano, taller and sturdier built than Nyiwe?
Similarly, freshman O’Mar Stanley attempted to defend the Creighton center. At 6’8”, Stanley gave gave away five inches to Kalkbrenner.
In recent games Joel Soriano has stood tall with his recent defensive intensity. At 6’11”and 255 pounds he would have been able to muscle Kirkbrenner away from the rim more effectively than Nywie or Stanley. Both Nywie and Stanley played well in the Creighton game, but the Johnnies needed their true big man to make the Creighton center work a little harder. Soriano could have made a difference.
The freshmen shine
Stanley may have had his Coming Out Game. He scored 14 points on seven for eight shots. He added a steal and took down three rebounds. Despite his performance he only played 12 minutes. Why only 12? Why was he not in when the Johnnies lost the lead in the last eight minutes of the game?
Rafael Pinzon, playing for the first time since the Pittsburgh game on December 18, 2021, was in a total of six minutes and hit an open three with the game on the line in the second half. He also had a rebound, an assist and a steal. He was able to handle the ball competently during his brief stay on the court.
During practice shooting prior to the onset of the last two games, Pinzon seemed deadly on jumpers from three point distance. At 6’6” inches, tall he is able to guard taller opponents at the guard position and appears to have a bright future for the Johnnies. Will that bright future play a role as this season winds down or is it all about “wait for next year”?
Why not give both of these freshman a little more court time in the next three games to see what role they can play in the upcoming tournament? They can make a difference and it is only a little bit of difference the team needs to turn close losses into victories.
As well as the non-starters played for the Johnnies, the game against Creighton was winnable if Champagnie and Wheeler had delivered 50 percent of their recent output. Between the two, they made four out of 26 field goal attempts.
Champagnie, in particular, has adjusted his game when his jump shooting is off. He has been quite successful on drives to the basket, ending in floaters from six feet and in during the second half of the season. He has also been successful in backing in opponents for short turnaround jumpers with a soft touch.
But it looks like the league is adjusting the Champagnie's adjustments.
7’1 inch Kalkbrenner was strong on the defensive end, a deterrent to Johnnies who attacked the basket. Perhaps the Creighton frontline defense deserves credit for impeding Champagnie’s efforts.
Wheeler simply was off on his jump shot. He did contribute, taking down nine rebounds in his 24 minutes of play. Unfortunately, he was not the offensive contributor of the past 10 games.
St. John’s fought off the Creighton surge during the seven minutes Stanley was on the floor in the second half. As Wheeler and Champagnie struggled, Stanley put up eight points in those seven minutes. In the last three minutes the game the entire team scored two points. Why not let the hot hand back into the game?
Perhaps the Johnnies season can be described as when the team clicks, it really clicks. When it doesn’t, the Red Storm stumbles its way to a single digit loss.
The season is running ever so short.
Away at DePaul will be a challenging game against an improved Blue Demon team. The Johnnies have found a way to rebound all year. They have found recent contributors in Smith, Stanley and, in his short stint against Creighton, Pinzon. Can the coaching staff find the right formula for the last few games in the season that will prepare the team for the Big East tournament?
Can the players again shake off a discouraging loss and bring maximum effort against DePaul?
Will the return of Joel Soriano provide the little bit extra needed to turn defeat into victory?
As one fan stated before the Creighton game, “I am hoping for more than I expect.”